Saturday, November 19, 2005

REVIEW: Feast of the Seven Fishes

Growing up as a kid in South Jersey, Christmas Eve had its annual traditions. With four kids (yours truly being the youngest) spread out over a dozen years living under one roof, the night before The Big Day was often spent trimming the tree, wrapping presents, and taking care of other last minute holiday preparations that would send us to bed exhausted. Which I think was my parents' grand scheme. That way we'd be too tired to care about who -- or what -- was depositing presents around the tree for the following morning.

My Dad was a Scot with a bit of Irish and English in him, but there were no traditions from "The Old Country" that I recall. In fact, Dad was as All-American as they came, a hard-working, fun-loving guy for whom baseball was more than just an American pasttime. My Polish mother could whip up a mean kielbasa or fresh ham, but was usually too busy keeping an eye on us kids to be preparing much more for Christmas Eve "dinner" than quickie meals like sloppy joes or the ever-odd scrambled eggs, mac & cheese, and canned peas. Don't ask.

It wasn't until I was in college that I heard about The Feast of the Seven Fishes from a friend who married into a South Philly Italian family. Though I never got to witness it, she'd talk about how her family would gather for this pre-Christmas feast with a name that -- at the time -- wasn't all that appealing to me.

You see, this was back when I don't think I could name seven fishes and the ones I could name were things like Chicken of the Sea, Filet-O-Fish, Howard Johnson's Fried Flounder, and that gross bluefish our neighbor insisted on giving us bags of every summer.

But she always had funny stories about the evening and how they'd cook (and drink) all day and eat (and drink) all night.

Though my friend lived in South Jersey and Bob Tinnell grew up in West Virginia near Pittsburgh, their stories of Christmas Eve and The Feast of Seven Fishes have similar themes running through them... the food, the drink, the friends, the family, the socializing, and, yes, the food. Especially the food, which sounds infinitely more appealing to me now than it did a couple decades ago. (I've come a long way since then, going so far as to eat monkfish liver one night at a sushi joint because I'd run out of other things to try.)

Tinnell -- who has directed films starring the likes of a pre-24 Elisha Cuthbert, Burt Reynolds, and Malcolm McDowall -- has shifted gears remarkably in the last few years, bringing his far-reaching loves and influences to the world of comics and graphic novels. Admittedly, reading The Black Forest (a love letter to the Universal Studios monster-bashes of old), The Wicked West (mysterious gunfighter meets vampires in The Old West), and the recent debut adventure featuring two-fisted 60s horror director Terry Sharp didn't prepare me for his latest effort, a hardcover collection of The Feast of The Seven Fishes, an on-line comic strip he created with artists Ed Piskor (American Splendor) and Alex Saviuk (Web of the Spider-Man). (You can read more about Tinnell's other works at the home of Livingston, Tinnell, Vokes Productions.)

Tinnell's Steeltown-area roots come through loud and clear in this sweet and funny tale of one family's Christmas Eve and the friends and family that come through their lives. Like the recipes featured in the book (more on that later), Feast has many key ingredients. There's a romantic comedy/coming-of-age base, a touch of drama, a dash of action, a generous helping of family, and even a few surprises that take the story of the Oliverio family beyond what you might expect.

Set in 1983, the story appears, at first glance, to be about Tony Oliverio, the college-age member of the clan and his dealings with friends, former lovers, and family over the course of the night. But more than that, Feast shows how traditions make their way through our society even to those to whom the traditions are, at first, unique and mysterious.

Though the character of Tony is at times a bit too sensitive for my tastes, it's easy to identify with him and many of the characters that populate the tale. We've all known (or know) someone like Juke, a lovable loner whose philosophical observations on life and love bring sense to a world that can be senseless. Or Beth, the outsider who brings us into the Oliverio family's world and shows that there's more to her than we first thought.

Feast is a fun read and it's nice to have the full run collected in one handy volume. Tinnell's dialogue is sprinkled with observations his relatives made when he shot a documentary about an actual Feast several years back and the whole thing has an authentic air about it. Even the Western PA/West Virginia setting rings true and took me back to my days spent living in Pittsburgh's Bloomfield section, an area that was probably home to hundreds of such events annually.

I hesitate to even refer to the work as a comic book, given the way some people look down their nose at the art form. It's more a graphic memoir, fictionalized though it may be, of a time and place that may have been a bit simpler for us all.

Besides that, Tinnell and his wife Shannon have used the volume to collect recipes for some of the traditional dishes at their own annual feast. The inclusion of the recipes is far more than just a clever hook to give the work broader appeal. It makes the entire package a gift from their family to the family of each and every reader. A historical document of that time as well as an uncomplicated guide to the signature dishes that make it unique.

Reading Feast you can almost hear the music and smell the food. By including the recipes, the Tinnells have passed on a bit of their own family tradition, making this a uniquely interactive comic. Just don't forget to change the soaking water for the salted cod.

Benne fatto!

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